Two Profiles in Courage

This article was originally published for The Retiree Advocate at psara.org in July 2016.

Forty-four years ago I was a poor recent college graduate and antiwar activist. I moved from Chicago to Seattle to work on my brother Jim’s campaign for governor. He was opposed to the Vietnam War, and he was fighting for universal health care, mass transit, and a more just world. He ran hard but lost. For the next 44 years, Jim and I continued to fight for economic, racial and social justice, peace, and much more. Brother Jim chose the path of serving in elected office; my path was as a lifelong labor and community activist and appointed official for three governors and four Seattle mayors.

In 1988, Jim was elected to Congress. I worked as his labor liaison as he won the endorsement of virtually all of organized labor. Twenty-eight years later he announced his retirement. We have come to expect Jim’s strong voice of conscience in the House. We have continued to elect him to Congress by huge percentages because we know he is a strong, courageous fighter willing to battle long odds and stay strong despite relentless unjust attacks.

Three fights in my brother Jim’s life epitomize the value of having a person of deep principle in office.

1. Jim took on Newt Gingrich at the height of his power and was instrumental in Gingrich’s resignation as House Speaker.

2. Jim worked closely with Pramila Jayapal in launching Hate Free Zone (later OneAmerica) after the 9/11 attacks, as they championed a people’s movement to defend our immigrant brothers and sisters who were under unjust racist, anti-Muslim, and immigrant-bashing attacks and threats.

3. In 2002, Jim stood almost alone and dared to tell the world that George W. Bush was misleading the American people about the situation in Iraq. He became “Baghdad Jim.” Months later, Jim and Pramila would share the stage at one of the largest demonstrations in Seattle history, opposing the Iraq War. We were not able to stop that war, but brother Jim and Pramila Jayapal were our champions in that fight.

Pramila Jayapal is another wonderful example of a courageous leader. Jim and Pramila worked together on a number of issues. She comes from the fire of movements, a person who has fought for some of the most complex issues of our time. When the mosque near Northgate was targeted by hate crimes and when Muslim women were attacked in Seattle for wearing the hijab, Pramila led the fight to protect them. When the immigrant grocers in the Rainier Valley were unjustly accused of being supporters of terrorism, brother Jim, Pramila Jayapal, and Hate Free Zone stood with them. Months later, the grocers were fully exonerated. Pramila also led the successful class action lawsuit against the Bush administration’s planned mass deportation of thousands of Somali men, preventing those deportations of thousands across the country.

Pramila’s work did not end there. She went on to build from scratch the largest immigrant advocacy organization in the state at a time when immigration reform was still not part of the progressive movement’s consciousness. By bringing together labor, faith, diverse immigrant and civil rights communities and elected officials and using tactics from policy advocacy and negotiation to voter registration to civil disobedience, Pramila built something that simply did not exist before—and has since paved the way for numerous victories for our entire city, region, state, and country.

With Donald Trump as the presumptive Republican nominee for President, the attacks post-9/11 on civil liberties of Arabs, Muslims, and South Asians hardly seem far away. Pramila and Jim together stood up against those attacks then, when President Bush said “Either you are with us…or you are with the terrorists”—words that struck fear into many who would disagree with Bush’s policies and the roundups of Muslims and Arab Americans. In opposing these policies publicly, Jim had the protection of being a member of Congress. Pramila, a recently naturalized citizen, did not. She showed us what courage looks like when somebody is needed to step forward and lead strongly for our ideals.

While the details of what happened are important—both in my brother’s courageous efforts as well as Pramila’s—it is really the quality of leadership that my brother Jim and Pramila share that I most want to emphasize.

With Donald Trump calling for a wall, mass deportations, punishing women, and so much more, we have Pramila and Jim as strong, tough, and proven fighters. And, while Trump and so many voices he has awakened call for exclusion, Pramila and Jim’s life have been about inclusion–bringing voices to the table and to our democracy that have never been there before.

I hope we all will thank my brother Jim and Pramila for their years of strong, courageous leadership. Jim is retiring from Congress, and Pramila, who is from a younger generation, will continue to lead in whatever capacity may present itself. We are very lucky to have both of these courageous leaders in our community.

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